Why preclearance in Abu Dhabi is good for the U.S.

This program with one of America’s closest partners in the Middle East is poised to service a growing transit hub for international passengers as business and tourist travel from the Middle East, Africa, and India increases with the U.S.

Government and airport authorities in Abu Dhabi welcome the facility and have made it clear to U.S. airlines that they are welcome to fly to and from Abu Dhabi’s International Airport to tap into this new preclearance program. 

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways flies directly from AUH to three major U.S. markets and boasts an active code-share agreement with American Airlines.  In addition to providing economic benefit to American Airlines, this code-share allows passengers to access the carrier’s domestic flights that service some 90 destinations around the U.S.

As frequent travelers and stakeholders in the U.S.-U.A.E. relationship, we understand why the U.S. government is keen to launch this initiative in Abu Dhabi:

The program will enhance U.S. security: A program fully-staffed by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the new preclearance facility in the U.A.E. will serve to improve security and will reduce transit time and security concerns for global travelers wishing to enter the U.S. through busy American airports.

The CBP already operates 15 preclearance facilities in Canada, Ireland, and the Caribbean for these reasons.  With increased travel through geocentric transit hubs like the U.A.E., a 16th facility in Abu Dhabi — the country’s capital — is a very logical choice.  The Abu Dhabi facility will effectively allow all CBP-cleared passengers to complete U.S. customs and immigration before boarding their inbound flight to the U.S.  Upon arrival, these travelers will benefit from proceeding to their final destination seamlessly.  American travelers will benefit from a significant reduction in passenger wait times and the costs associated with additional security procedures currently performed at U.S. airports.

CBP will apply the same rigorous standards in Abu Dhabi that it applies at U.S. airports, but will do so before any passenger that might pose a risk boards their flight.  It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental and cost-effective way for CBP to protect the United States than to work with one of our most reliable partners in a strategically sensitive part of the world to prevent any potentially dangerous passengers from boarding planes bound for America.  It is even more difficult to imagine anyone arguing that they would prefer to conduct such screening at Kennedy or Dulles Airports, after the passenger has already arrived on U.S. soil.

The program is good for passengers: Over the last decade, passengers from the Middle East have experienced long delays in receiving visas prior to travel and endured lengthy screenings at CBP facilities soon after arrival in the U.S.  Not only do these inconveniences portray American business and tourism in a negative light, they also send the wrong message to key demographic customers representing a significant portion of global travel and commerce.  Accordingly, the new preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi will simultaneously increase economic and cultural ties between the U.S. and communities in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia looking to experience the added benefit of clearing the American security process before getting on a plane.

This program will boost the U.S. economy and facilitate more economic activity.  Ensuring a safe and smooth arrival to the U.S. for all travelers from the region will prove beneficial to the economy.  According to the U.S. Travel Association, international travel is America’s top service export bringing in nearly $4500 per traveler per trip to the U.S., contributing nearly $130 billion to the U.S. economy, and generating more than $19 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue.  For business and tourist travelers from the Middle East region, the new facility will ensure a more convenient and efficient flying experience — allowing them to focus on business and tourism, while increasing their chance of return trips.  America’s total share of international travelers has fallen since 2000, and programs like this could help reverse the trend.

The facility will save money for the U.S. government.  The U.A.E. has agreed to cover 85% of the costs associated with the preclearance facility.  These costs — including the salaries of CBP officers and the expense of operating systems — would otherwise be incurred at the U.S. airport of arrival and thus borne by the U.S. government.  It is worth noting that even though the U.A.E. is picking up a major part of the tab, it will have no voice in the operation of the facility and no say over the official screening decisions or procedures of the CBP officers.  In this time of fiscal austerity, a new preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi is an innovative and effective way to enhance U.S. security and save money at the same time.

The Abu Dhabi preclearance facility will significantly boost American security, enhance business and tourism relations with a youthful and dynamic region, and reduce costs affiliated with additional screening and holding of international passengers upon arrival in the United States.

Sebright is president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council and the head of the Middle East Practice Group at The Cohen Group.